January 21, 2019

Photo Essay: Sea Otter Spotting in Morro Bay

I went up to the Central Coast this weekend for the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival, but that was just an excuse.

Sure, I saw a few Great Blue herons and even a couple peregrine falcons, but those weren't the really big draw for me.

Out of all the wildlife viewing in the Central Coast, Morro Bay is probably most famous for its birds. And maybe its harbor seals and sea lions.

But I had another marine mammal on my mind: the Southern sea otter.

I hadn't realized there were any in Morro Bay when I last visited back in 2011, though I'd been bewitched by otters (at least, river otters) since I was a little kid.

During this first return trip, I looked forward to seeing them. On Day One of the festival, I looked for the sea otters around the Harbor Hut on the Embarcardero—but I didn't know exactly where to go, so I never found them.

On Day Two of the festival, I'd spotted a sea otter during my morning kayak trip—just a lone otter, floating on its back, clapping its hind flippers. Noting my interest, my fellow kayakers (who were more local) sent me to the "T" pier by Harbor Hut to find more.

And lo, there they were: seven or eight adults, possibly as many as four little fluffball babies. It was hard to tear myself away.

So, on Day Three of the festival—an ominously gray day under heavy fog—I went back to the T pier.

While the "raft" of otters I found there consisted of fewer individuals than the day before...

...and just one juvenile, no tiny babies...

...I noticed something else different from the day before.

These otters were a lot more active.

They were somersaulting, log-rolling, wrestling, and swimming—not just floating. And the frisky kid was climbing all over the other two (primarily one of them, who I can assume was the mother).

Their fur, both light and dark, alternately glistens with dewdrops and mats down, slicked back...

...and fluffed out in a giant puffball.

When they're not sleeping 14 hours a day, they're either hunting or grooming.

They were hunted heavily from the 18th to early 20th centuries for their pelts, which are so warm that, unlike pinnipeds, these animals can survive full-time in the ocean without a layer of blubber. Populations dramatically declined, and now they're federally protected—though still endangered. That means no touching!

They're really smart, too—like humans, they use tools to access their food supply (for example, banging a rock to open a shell and get the seafood inside).

They were such a sight on Sunday that I sent a message to a friend I was supposed to meet elsewhere: "Meet me at the otters."

But by the time I could answer her question of where the otters were, they were gone, off to their midday naps.

Related Posts:
Swimming With Otters
Photo Essay: Rescue, Rehab and Release at the Marine Mammal Care Center

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